By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
Humans are fascinated by food. We want to know its source, its nutrient content, when it was harvested and by whom, and so much more. Since childhood, I was the nagging child who interrogated wait staff about the seafood menu because I cared about the sustainability aspect as well as consuming ethically-sourced seafood. Decades later I still do the same: ask a myriad of questions from restaurants and stores in order to eat as sustainably as possible. But in addition to asking these questions about my food, I also question what my study species eats and why. My study populations, common bottlenose dolphins, are described as top opportunistic predators (Norris and Prescott 1961, Shane et al. 1986, Barros and Odell 1990). In my study area off of California, this species exists in two ecotypes. The coastal ecotype off of California, USA are generalist predators, feeding on many different species of fish using different foraging techniques (Ballance 1992, Shane 1990). The offshore ecotype, on the other hand, is less well-studied, but is frequently observed in association with sperm whales, although the reason is still unknown (Díaz-Gamboa et al. 2018). Stable isotope analysis from skin samples from the two ecotypes indicates that the ecotypes exhibit different foraging strategies based on different isotopic carbon and nitrogen levels (Díaz-Gamboa et al. 2018).
Preliminary and historical data on common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) suggest that the coastal ecotype spend more time near estuary mouths than offshore dolphins (Ballance 1992, Kownacki et al. unpublished data). Estuaries contain large concentrations of nutrients from runoff, which support zooplankton and fishes. It is for this reason that these estuaries are thought to be hotspots for bottlenose dolphin foraging. Some scientists hypothesize that these dolphins are estuarine-based prey specialists (Barros and Odell 1990), or that the dolphins simply aggregate in estuaries due to higher prey abundance (Ballance 1992).
In an effort to understand diet compositions of bottlenose dolphins, during coastal surveys seabirds were recorded in association with feeding groups of dolphins. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that dolphins were feeding on the same fishes as Brown pelicans, blue-footed and brown boobies, double-crested cormorants, and magnificent frigatebirds, seeing as they were the most common species associated with bottlenose dolphin feeding groups (Ballance 1992). A shore-based study by Hanson and Defran (1993) found that coastal dolphins fed more often in the early morning and late afternoon, as well as during periods of high tide current. These patterns may have to do with the temporal and spatial distribution of prey fish species. From the few diet studies conducted on these bottlenose dolphins in this area, 75% of the prey were species from the families Ebiotocidae (surf perches) and Sciaendae (croakers) (Norris and Prescott 1961, Walker 1981). These studies, in addition to optimal foraging models, suggest this coastal ecotype may not be as much of a generalist as originally suggested (Defran et al. 1999).
Diet studies on the offshore ecotype of bottlenose dolphins worldwide show a preference for cephalopods, similar to other toothed cetaceans who occupy similar regions, such as Risso’s dolphin, sperm whales, and pilot whales (Clarke 1986, Cockcroft and Ross 1990, Gonzalez et al. 1994, Barros et al. 2000, Walker et al. 1999). Because these animals seldom strand on accessible beaches, stomach contents analyses are limited to few studies and isotope analysis is more widely available from biopsies. We know these dolphins are sighted in deeper waters than the habitat of coastal dolphins where there are fewer nutrient plumes, so it is reasonable to hypothesize that the offshore ecotype consumes different species and may be more specialized than the coastal ecotype.
For a species that is so often observed from shore and boats, and is known for its charisma, it may be surprising that the diets of both the coastal and offshore bottlenose dolphins are still largely unknown. Such is the challenge of studying animals that live and feed underwater. I wish I could simply ask a dolphin, much like I would ask staff at restaurants: what is on the menu today? But, unfortunately, that is not possible. Instead, we must make educated hypotheses about the diets of both ecotypes based on necropsies and stable isotope studies, and behavioral and spatial surveys. And, I will continue to look to new technologies and creative thinking to provide the answers we are seeking.
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